Ten days into a new American era, a hundred white and black citizens of this deeply polarized east Texas town tried their hand at the kind of racial reconciliation heralded by the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama, gathering for a frank community dialogue on the long-taboo topic of race.
Things didn’t go so well.
The black speakers at Thursday night’s meeting, led by two conciliation specialists from the U.S. Department of Justice, mostly spoke about incidents of discrimination, prejudice and unfairness they said they routinely suffer in Paris. Their white listeners mostly glared back with their arms crossed.
The four-hour session ended with some participants screaming at each other over the presence of three police cars parked outside the meeting hall, and who had ordered them and why.
“I’m here to talk about racism. I don’t see any sense in playing games, pretending it doesn’t exist,” said Brenda Cherry, the African-American leader of a local civil rights group. “When you go in the schools and see mostly black kids sitting in detention–it’s racism. In court, we get high bonds, we get longer sentences. If that’s not racism, what is it?”
Jason Rogers, the youth pastor of a local black church, reminded the audience of the monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers that sits on the front lawn of the county courthouse.
“When I take my 5-year-old son up to the courthouse, and he says, ‘Daddy, what’s that?’ the history I’m going to tell him is that those people fought to keep me a slave,” Rogers said, as black members of the audience nodded in agreement. “It bothers my family that there’s a large Confederate soldier outside the courthouse. I don’t see the difference between a Confederate soldier and a Nazi soldier.”
The event was held in a hall at the Paris Fairgrounds, the precise spot where, a century ago, thousands of white citizens gathered to cheer the ritualized lynchings of blacks, chaining them to a flagpole or lashing them to a scaffold before tearing them to pieces and setting them on fire.
But memories of much more recent black victims also filled the room as Paris resident Jacqueline McClelland approached the microphone.
McClelland’s 24-year-old son, Brandon, was killed last year, allegedly at the hands of two white men, who authorities charge dragged him beneath a pickup truck until his body was nearly dismembered. The accused killers are awaiting trial on murder charges, although McClelland’s family and civil rights leaders want hate crime charges added as well.
Then Creola Cotton stood up to speak.
In 2006, Cotton’s daughter Shaquanda, then 14, was sentenced by a local judge to up to 7 years in a youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at Paris High School. Three months earlier, the same judge had sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation for the more serious crime of arson.
Racial discrimination in Paris, he [Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville] insisted, is a problem of perception, not reality.
“I think the black community in this town is suffering a great deal from poverty, broken homes, drugs,” Superville said. “Because a larger percentage of the black population is caught up in that, in their anguish they are perceiving they are the victims of discrimination. But white people are not the enemy. Poverty, illiteracy, drugs, absentee fathers–that’s the enemy. That’s not racism. That’s the breakdown of a community.”